What can a JAG attorney do in a Virginia military divorce?

In Virginia, only attorneys licensed by the Virginia Bar Association can represent clients by appearing in courts in the Commonwealth. An attorney can be licensed in one of two ways – either by attending an accredited law school and passing the bar exam (by far the most common method), or by “reading” the law, which basically means undertaking an extended apprenticeship program without attending law school. Virginia is one of the only places you can “read” the law anymore and, in any case, it’s extremely rare.

Most of the attorneys you see will have attended law school and passed the bar. From there, they get a job – either with the state, in private practice, or by hanging out their own “shingle” and starting their own practice. (Or not working in law entirely – but those types of people aren’t the subject of this article today.)

Virginia licensed attorneys are sworn in, and receive their license to practice. Attorneys maintain their license by paying renewal fees each year, and attending a certain number of continuing education hours.

You must be licensed in Virginia in order to appear in the courts in the Commonwealth.

Military JAG attorneys are different. In most cases, they took the bar in their home state (or maybe even the state where they attended law school; it doesn’t much matter where) and then were assigned a posting with the military. Military JAG attorneys aren’t attorneys in the state where they are stationed; they may (but, probably more likely, may not) find themselves stationed in the state where they happened to take the bar exam. In any case, JAG attorneys don’t practice state law; they practice military law.

JAG attorneys are not Virginia licensed attorneys for the purposes of appearing in courts in Virginia. They are not allowed, even if the attorney in question happened to pass the bar here.

(Remember: passing the bar exam is only ONE part of the equation!) That’s not the way it works.

So, can I ask a JAG attorney about my divorce or separation agreement paperwork?

I mean, you can. And it’s possible that the JAG attorney would review it. But… I’d be concerned, if I were you.

Because divorce law is state-specific. So, not being licensed here (and even if he or she passed the bar here, it’s not the same thing as being licensed and practicing in the courts day in and day out) is a big red flag. The laws are constantly changing and, if you’re not keeping up with the changes, you could easily miss something. It’s a big part of why I don’t take personal injury or wills and estates cases from time to time; I’d quickly find myself out of my element.

When you don’t know – especially when you don’t know what you don’t know – you make mistakes. And there’s no way for a JAG attorney to have the experience of practicing this kind of law exclusively, all the time, in Virginia or anywhere else. And it may be that there are a lot of gaps in his or her knowledge of Virginia law, and your specific rights and entitlements.

Not only that, but I’ve found that JAG attorneys are much more sympathetic to the service member than the spouse – so I’d be pretty skeptical of any advice I got, especially as it relates to the TSP, the pension, the SBP, and other assets like that (that military service members hate to share with their spouses).

What if I just have the JAG attorney look at my agreement, or give me a little advice?

The JAG attorney really shouldn’t look at your agreement or give you any advice as it relates to Virginia divorce law – unless, of course, he or she is telling you that you really should consult with someone licensed in Virginia.

Sometimes, they’ll do it anyway, even though they’re not supposed to. And, really, it’s a mixed bag. Some give okay advice, but I’ve seen some (even some that have drafted separation agreements!) that have done an abysmal job.

I don’t know these people, for the most part. I’m not trying to knock anyone, or suggest that they’re doing anything on purpose to hurt a service member’s spouse. I have a great deal of respect for their courage and sacrifice for our country. But I also draw the line at telling someone something without being quite sure of it – and I don’t see how you could be sure, if you don’t practice Virginia family law on a daily basis.

JAG attorneys practice military law. And they’re very smart, obviously! But just because someone is smart doesn’t mean they know all the laws. Spoiler alert: we don’t know all the laws! And just like I don’t go practice bankruptcy or immigration law (because I’d do a terrible job!), they really shouldn’t dabble in family law.

At the end of the day, it’s your case – do what you want. But you really should consult with a licensed, experienced Virginia family law attorney. Don’t want to meet with one of us? That’s fine with me, too. But maybe, before you go, request a free copy of our divorce book, or attend our monthly divorce seminar – you can at least make sure it jives with the advice you’ve been given, and ask questions if anything is unclear to you later.

There’s a lot at stake in a divorce and/or custody case, and it really is to your benefit to do everything you can to get the up to date, Virginia-specific information you need direct from a licensed, experienced Virginia divorce and custody attorney. For more information, visit our website at hoflaw.com, or give us a call at 757-425-5200.

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